Bill Long 3/25/06
Still on Xeric, Mesic and Hydric
We saw in the previous essay that xeric meant having or being characterized by a scanty amount of moisture. Only originating in 1926, the word often appears with "features" ("the southern Cevannes has many xeric features") or "conditions," but one brief quotation from 1979 connects xeric and edaphic (of two essays ago): "This soil represents an edaphically xeric condition." I really don't recommend that you go around talking this way, however, if you want to keep your friends. This essay will continue to probe a few more words beginning with "xer" or "xero" before returning to our triad.
Something that is xerophilous, is something that loves dryness. Usually associated with plants that are peculiarly adapted to dry (and hot) conditions, I think its future lies with a clever association with people, especially those who are flocking to Phoenix. Rather than talking about a migration from the "rust belt" to the "sun belt," as commentators have been doing for decades, we can talk about the xerophilous migrants, or the seasonal xerophiles dropping into the Valley of the Sun from Minnesota and the Dakotas.
Then there is xerophthalmia, or xerosis, which relates to dryness in the eyes. Someone practicing xerophagy eats only "dry" things. This was especially characteristic of some early Christian Lenten or monastic behavior in, where only bread, herbs, salt and water are consumed. I wonder if the xerophage (pronounced ZERO-fage) diet will be the next craze in our diet-obsessed but weight-gaining culture. Can't you just see the book on the shelves now? The title would scream: "Discover Xerophagy!" or "How to Lose Weight through Xerophagy." "Zero weight gain through Xerophage." Those who have possibly lapsed from such a strict dietary regimen might then attend meetings of Xerophages anonymous. I suppose, however, that the word xerophage itself would deter all but the most intrepid from coming to the meetings. Then, there would be the t-shirts and the testimonial material---"I was a teenage xerophage," or something like this.
I think I better retreat from xer- while I am behind. But I can't do so without introducing a term, Xeriscape that only goes back to the early 1980s. First appearing in the Denver Post on May 19, 1982, the word simply means a style of landscape design fit for arid regions, chiefly by using plants and features suited to a dry climate. It can also refer to the garden or landscape so designed. The word became popular enough so that the Washington Post picked it up in 1989: "Almong the most ingenious of the water-conservation businesses have been those offering a new line of landscaping and horticultural products grouped under the general term 'Xeriscape.'"*
[*When Xerox machines came online in the 1950s they were so called because of the "dry" copying process utilized. The word xerography was coined in 1948 by a certain Chester F. Carlson, a New York lawyer, and it referred to "a revolutionary process of inkless printing." Indeed, the October 23, 1948 article in the New York Times was correct; dry printing transformed the printing process. The paper announced that this process would enable prints of text and pictures to be made at speeds of 1,200 copies a minute. I don't know if the social impact of the easy availability of multiple copies has been studied, but I would say that it, like email in the late 1990s, revolutionized communication.]
Moving to Hydric and Mesic
If truth be told, what got me on this triad was really the word mesic, which I came across as I was studying the Collegiate dictionary in preparation for a spelling bee. But, first, let's look briefly (and I mean briefly) at hydric. The Century only has one meaning of hydric, pertaining to hydrogen in chemical combination. But the Collegiate and OED have the usage I want: "Of a habitat: having a plentiful supply of water." But by looking at the OED on hydric I discovered that this triad of terms (xeric, mesic, hydric), when invented in 1926, replaced an earlier triad. Here is the relevant quotation:
"In order..to provide terms which shall be applicable to both plants and animals, we suggest the adjectives 'xerophytic,' 'hydrophytic,' and 'mesophytic,' be entirely abandoned as useless and misleading. In their place we offer the terms 'xeric,' 'hydric,' and 'mesic,' to be defined as follows: Xeric (hydric, mesic): characterized by or pertaining to conditions of scanty (abundant, medium) moisture supply."
The strategem seemed to work. By 1947 a scientist could say, "Hydric, xeric, and mesic are commonly encountered in ecologic literature..These adjectives, if used, should be applied only to habitats."
But before leaving this topic, I must ask the question, "How do you think xerophytic, hydrophytic and mesophytic felt when a scientist in the 20th century wanted to do away with them?" After all, hydrophytic went back to the 1830s, even though the other two were only attested more recently. And, indeed, one term apparently was ignored in this strong-arm attempt to modify three perfectly good words. From an 1896 scientific publication, we have plant societies divided "into the following [four] great groups: hydrophytes, xerophytes, halophytes and mesophytes." We saw that three were shortened to "hydric, xeric, and mesic," while the fourth remained as a halophyte. And halophyte remains the term today. There is no "halic" anymore. Check that. Indeed, the word halic does exist today, but it is the name of a Rotary Club in Istanbul.
Yet, the last laugh was not had by the scientists who wanted to suppress hydrophytic, xerophytic and mesophytic. Internet searches today will confirm that even though xeric, hydric and mesic more frequently appear than hydrophytic, xerophytic and mesophytic, the latter terms are still very prevalent. The coup was unsuccessful.
How much have you learned from this? I hope you don't say "xero."
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long